From the February 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard
Religious groups have a notorious history of stifling dissent by any means possible. And if, in Britain, nonbelievers are no longer persecuted, tortured and killed it is because the superstitious myths and rituals with which religion cloaks itself are no longer taken seriously by the majority of the population. But there are countries where the heads of religion are still able to wield considerable power and influence. To belong to a different faith or to question that religion and try to have a reasoned discussion instead of blindly accepting its "rules" is to take great personal risks.
The humanist and feminist author, 32-year-old Taslima Nasrin has fallen foul of Muslim fundamentalists in her native Bangladesh because her novel Lajja published in 1993 depicts Hindus mistreated by Muslims. In an interview given to the Calcutta newspaper the Statesman she stated that the Sharia law (the Muslim religious law which makes women second-class citizens) needed reforming but this was misquoted as her saying that the Koran needed reform and fuelled fundamentalist anger still further.
Fundamentalist Muslims demonstrated in the streets threatening to kill her, and the Bangladeshi government, afraid of public disorder, succumbed to threats and issued a warrant for her arrest under article 295(a) of the Penal Code for "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings". This law was introduced by the British during the days of the British Empire and was intended to prevent inter-religious fighting which would have made Asia more difficult to govern. Ironically, it was now being used to further religious differences and fundamentalist hatred.
After the warrant was issued for her arrest on 4 June 1993, Nasrin went into hiding for a couple of months before appearing in court in Dhaka on 3 August, accompanied by her lawyer, Sara Hossain. She was granted bail. It has been claimed that the secular Bangladeshi government wanted to give her an opportunity to leave the country. This is quite possible given the widespread international support that she received, since her continued persecution by either fundamentalists or the Bangladeshi courts would have created further embarrassment for the Bangladeshi government.
PEN, the international writers' organisation, offered assistance and within a week Nasrin fled to Sweden where she was granted political asylum. Shortly after she appeared in Stockholm to receive the Kurt Tucholsky prize which is given annually to a writer in exile. In 1992 it was awarded to Salman Rushdie, also in hiding from fundamentalist death threats.
In accepting the prize, Nasrin thanked the Swedish government for granting her asylum and pledged to continue her fight against "fundamentalist insanity . . . which is spreading darkness in the world". She is trapped in a conflict between liberal secularism and religious fundamentalism, with, the extreme Islamic group, Jamaat stating that "the blood lust will have to be satisfied elsewhere".
Nasrin had criticised Islamic law on previous occasions; in an interview for the New York Times she stated that: "some men would keep women in chains-veiled, illiterate and in the kitchen". She added: "There are 60 million women in my country, not more than 15 per cent of them can read and write. How can Bangladesh become a modern country and find its place in the world when it is dragged backwards by reactionary attitudes towards half its people? It is my belief that politics cannot be based on religion if our women are to be free".
In an interview for Index (September/October 1994) Nasrin was asked if she wanted to revise the Koran. She stated:
"The Quran can no longer serve as the basis of our law. A thousand years ago it may have been useful for fending off barbarism. But we live in modern times, the era of science and technology. The Quran has become superfluous. It stands in the way of progress and the way of women's emancipation."
Asked of she still considered herself a Muslim, Taslima Nasrin replied:
"No, I am an atheist. All forms of religion are anachronistic to me. I dream of a world without religion. Religion gives birth to fundamentalism as surely as the seed gives birth to the tree. We can tear the tree down, but if the seed remains it will produce another tree. While the seed remains we cannot root out fundamentalism."
Religion is the badge of the mentally-enslaved. It uses a cloak of mystification to reinforce its authority by promising a mythical afterlife as a reward for blind obedience and by making threats of eternal punishment, backed up by intimidation and persecution for those who do not submit. It has been a useful tool in the hands of the ruling classes to keep their subjects subservient.